Skirting Shakespeare’s Ashland
>>> Photo essay: This corner of Oregon is fast becoming a new Mecca for the food groupies from all over
November 13, 2006
Some 25 years ago, just after noon of a warm summer day, we stood in line to buy tickets for that night’s performance at the Elizabethan theater in Ashland. I struck up a conversation with a young man who was standing behind me. He told me that he was traversing the Pacific Trail from Canada and was expecting to arrive in Mexico City just before Thanksgiving. He had come down for one night in Ashland to take in a Shakespeare play. In those days, I also did much more hiking than going to the Bard’s feasts. The memory of that glorious night, however, has attracted me to this jewel of a city in Southern Oregon every summer since. The old theater has been renovated; it has lost some of its nostalgic charm for us old timers in return for more comfort. It resembles even less the recreated Old Globe in London.
On this particular recent weekend we saw an innovative production of The Two Gentlemen from Verona. In an attempt to make it contemporary, the director set the play in today’s Amish country for Verona, and in an imaginary “Brooks Brothers” land for Milan. The conceit is that Shakespeare sent the Verona boys to the cosmopolitan Milan on rumspringa, just as the Amish today encourage their youth to see the world beyond and experience the life that might be wildly different from the simple existence in where they were raised.
For me there was a coincidence of sorts here. In the summer after my junior year in college I went to the Amish country in Pennsylvania to work as a production hand for the Ephrata Summer Stock Theater. I had not seen the Amish life before and the little I observed worked for me as the reverse rumspringa. What I want to tell you here, however, is about another trip of the same kind. The day after the play, we skirted out of the prettied-up Ashland to see the more rustic, “real” country in the Applegate Valley.
The Painted Tools
As we crossed the old historic bridge over the Applegate River I shouted to the couple who were wading in the river below. They waived and we turned into the dusty parking lot marked by a rough wooden fence leading into the lodge at the river. In the lobby the scene was like a big summer party in the early stages of preparation. Women in shorts were busy with tasks. Half eaten donuts and coffee cups were all over. A pile of clean white towels was on a table; the soiled ones were on the floor. Young men in swimming shorts were going out of the lobby toward the river. We were asked: “Are you from the second wedding?” We learned later that the lodge, which has 7 rooms, is the venue for more than 45 weddings a year.
From the framed copy of newspaper interviews with the owners which decorated the halls of the lodge, we learned that its log structure was meant to be both authentic and long-lasting when built in 1997. On those walls were also other pictures without much coherence. One was that of Peter Britt of the nearby Jacksonville Britt Festival fame. The caption told of how that Swiss entrepreneur had morphed into a famous photographer when he came this way from the East. Someone had decided that the printed dates were incorrect; new dates were pasted on in ink.
I recognized the woman mentioned as the owner in another picture, as she approached us in the lobby; I greeted her. She was blonde and tall and carried a screw driver and a pair of pliers in her hands. “Look at the great flower design on them,” she said, “I painted them on because the guys keep borrowing my tools and never returning them. No man would want to keep these.” Someone mentioned she should use more pink to further assure that outcome.
The business conception of the lodge was simply the logical outgrowth of the successful restaurant and grill that is now an attachment to it. As patrons kept asking where they could sleep after an evening meal, the owners eventually concluded that there was a market for the use of their extra property which fortuitously was the only available commercially zoned lot around. They almost did not make it, however, as, initially, even the $30,000 required for the construction was beyond their capacity to borrow.
Across the road from the lodge was a general store with an annex for Oregonland.com. Property owners now appear to be getting rich fast here. In the still unpaved lot on the edge of the parking area we spotted a man and his van full of junk which he was spreading out for all to see. On a shawl already hanging from the improvised canopy extending from the van, there were two old small pins so funky that they could shine on a swell’s soiree décolleté. “They are two bucks each,” the man said. His full beard was black, his teeth were white. There was a sparkle in his faint smile. No country simpleton, he. “I used to work in Hollywood,” he informed us. He was referring to the location, not the industry. “Where do you live now,” I asked, expecting him to say in his van.
“I have a mining claim to 26 acres of land.”
“Is the land easily accessible?”
“Sometimes yes, and sometimes no.”
“Are you prospecting these days?”
“Enough to pay the taxes and sometimes more.”
Then he described the profession he was displaying: “I am a stuffalogist. I gather and sell stuff from all over.” He asked about us and what we were doing there. He directed us to the narrow road visible that curved away from the main road, “take that. You will like it.”
Winery as a Date
So we took North Applegate Road and visited the little kingdom that Mr. Troon had started. He was a river guide but he was also among the first, in 1972, to happen upon the gift of this exceptional area with plenty of water for growing grapes. Unlike the neighboring valleys, this one did not get fog. What was more, the temperature fluctuated between 50 and 100 degrees on a given summer day, and there was an afternoon breeze. These are ideal climatic elements for grapevines, we were told by Chris who was Troon’s successor as owner. The old man himself makes only occasional appearances.
Although also a local, Chris was a different breed. He made his money in “Communications Technology,” and quit the corporate world to follow his “passion” by making wine. He considered himself a marketing specialist, and readily admitted that he left the science of wine-making to exerts he would hire. He showed his respect for them by calling one particular wine “Insomnia Port,” as its maker insisted on measuring the sugar content every hour for three days, including the nights, for the precise time to implement the next step of the required process -which usually occurred at 4 in the morning.
Chris’s marketing passion was writ all over. His tasting room was an imposing structure of several thousand square feet, built at the cost of 180 dollars per square foot, remarkable figures for the still virgin area where you could buy acreage at six thousand dollars per acre. The production had already increased several times. As more than 60 percent of the sales were still at the winery, Chris’s touch was most visible here. No more than two parties of wine-tasting guests were poured for at any given time. Others were ushered into an inviting garden with magnificent views of surrounding meadows and high mountains where two long pits for bocce ball beckoned. Chris himself served us, and engaged us in a conversation which was different from the canned one you get in the more established wineries. In fact, he was more the type of accomplished young man you would want your daughter to meet.
He wore his winery’s T-shirt which said something about no Pinot being sold there. “To distinguish us from the other Southern Oregon wineries,” he explained, “which are mostly known for their Pinots.” He said he wore that T-shirt a few nights ago when he went to a local bar late in the evening. He was asked if he had “just come from work?” He replied that he did not “work” as this was his passion. “I told them the winery was my date.” Next to us a winsome blonde, who was pouring for a foursome of guests, smiled.
The Harley Davidson Shrine
Chris charged ten dollars for the tasting, explaining that it included small appetizers prepared by a special chef as “wine could best be enjoyed with food.” The wines themselves were worth the price but the food complimented them nicely. Missy, a cheerful transplant from Hollister, California was the chef. She had come up with her husband to build their dream Bed and Breakfast nearby. We now went to visit it. As we drove into its grand gravel driveway, the husband explained that this was his idea of a “plantation.” He had acted as the general contractor himself and had also dabbled in antique business.
Both traits showed in the edifice that he built. He was also a practical man. He explained that the Inn was designed so that it could be sold as a house. The mixed result could not be missed. One entered a family’s dream house, while expecting a lodge for tourists. There was a household kitchen adjacent to a familiar living room. Large pictures of the couple’s grown children adorned the staircase going up. On the second floor, there was a magnificent anti bar long enough to serve thirty patrons. The owner proudly showed us five guest rooms, each decorated with a distinct “theme.”. The sixth room was almost a shrine to the Harley Davidson motorcyclists who were friends of the owners from their Hollister days.
The Clever Maria
As the afternoon temperature soared to 100 degrees we drove to Maria’s stand. Her “tasting room” is a makeshift one. It is her vineyard that was stately with its sweeping view of the valley and the high mountains to the south. She ushered us to a garden table and chairs set in a charming patio that was covered in lengths of fabric for shade and cooled by the mist of an overhanging sprinkler hose. I was also encouraged to try out a red hammock hanging between two nearby trees nearby.
Maria put before us the laminated “Invitation” to her winery. It read: “If you could do anything you wanted, what would it be?” Maria had posed that question to her husband some years earlier. “Grow grapes and make wine,” was his response.
As a result, Maria is now in Applegate Valley, from May to October, making wine while her husband is still in his cubicle in Indiana toiling as a Chemist. “But he will one day come to live here, after we make a profit,” Maria assured us. A family person, Maria labeled her first wine “Wedding” to celebrate the matrimony of her son. I asked Maria where she lived while here. Her impish smile brightened her face in the shadow of a wide-rimmed straw hat as she pointed to a grey structure way back in the vineyard: “in an RV which I parked inside the barn to keep cool from the sun.”
It is both hard and easy to find the place. The address is a number on the highway which is impossible to read while driving. The lot where you park the car, however, is easy to spot if you remember the old neon sign on the fifteen foot pole. The writing on the sign, of course, has nothing to do with the New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro in front of which it stands.
This is fast becoming a new Mecca for the food groupies from all over. “Why are you here?” I asked Vernon, the husband of the couple who own it. “We have 7 acres of land and we grow our own produce on one acre,” was his answer. In another part of our conversation, he recalled past posts in the Bonneville Hotel, where they first made their reputation, followed by France where they ran someone else’s restaurant. “It was in Burgundy, but not in the wine-making part,” he said. He recommended a Pinot Noir for both of our plates, a Salmon dish and a Lamb dish. It was a perfect choice for the perfectly prepared dishes. The vegetables and the deserts completed a nonpareil meal for this night that happened to be on Bastille Day 2006. The room could easily pass as a small restaurant of your imagination in rural France.
“Charlene does not come out,” said our server about the master chef. “She is shy. Sometimes you may be able to peak into the kitchen to see her.” On my rumspringa I was equally interested in the server who looked incongruously like a French maiden. “I am from here,” she said. She had been working at the restaurant for 3 years and for now enjoyed the scarce full-time job. Down the line she was thinking, maybe, to go to college.
The Book Buyer
I was bent on my knees, looking for a Folger Library paperback for the next play we were planning to see in Ashland. I was surprised that my name was called from behind. A smiling lady addressed me with the familiarity which was embarrassing as I could not place her. She reported that she had come up from Los Gatos after her husband Seymour died seven years ago. Eileen was happy in Ashland. She had been concerned about the cold weather. “But it snows so few times that you say hey, look, snow!” she said. “It is pleasant and quiet here. But in spring we welcome the sight of tourists.” She keeps busy as the book buyer for this Shakespeare Festival Bookstore. She now asked me, “How is Leela?” Only when she mentioned the name of my late brother’s wife, did I recall that Eileen was the wife of his friend and partner.
As we were paying for the books we had bought, the cashier, a petite, grey-haired volunteer, proffered a tray of brownies, chocolate chip cookies, and pecan bars: “Since you are a friend of Eileen’s, why don’t you get some of these? They were made by Eileen’s sister, Sheri.” I bought a few. “You are a shrewd salesperson,” I told her. “Eileen trained me,” was her retort.
We took the cookies to the Festival’s Members’ lounge next door to have them with coffee. The close arrangement of sofas that makes the small room cozy also makes eavesdropping unavoidable. I was struck at how diverse the accents were. The conversation was about the war but also about the New York Review of Books after Barbara Epstein. I recalled a picnic of many years past, on the side of the canal just outside New Hope not far from the Amish country where, after lunch, I attempted to impress my brainy Bryn Mawr date with pulling out to read a copy of an early issue of NYRB. We talked about the war at that time too, but the one then raging in Vietnam. I chuckled when I remembered that the engine of my VW bug froze on our way back to New York because I had forgotten to put water in the radiator. I was seized with a strange nostalgia as all appeared to have remained the same. In my imagination I had now also come back from my brief reverse rumspringa. The earth was still round. Comment
Keyvan Tabari is an international lawyer in San Francisco. He holds a PhD and a JD, and has taught at Colby College, the University of Colorado, and the University of Tehran. The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.